Politics & Society

Leveson: What’s on the line?

Lord Justice Leveson has been dealt a bad hand. On Thursday he’ll fulfil his task of recommending a new regulatory system for the British press — that vague bunch whose boundaries and levels of entry shift with each technological innovation.

It’s possible Sir Brian’s report will have a brief life in the age of the internet: A world where we are all publishers, where citizen journalists and reporters on national papers curate and cover the same stories, where traditional models of journalism are chipped away. But Leveson is determined to recommend something that works for the public, the public who were disgusted (rightly so) at the phone hacking scandal.

So what’s on the table? The industry and the newly-formed Free Speech Network is flying the flag for improved self-regulation. Index has called for a model of tough, independent regulation free from government interference. Campaign group Hacked Off is pushing for statutory underpinning of a new independent regulator, a model the National Union of Journalists and several Tory MPs and peers defended earlier this month.

Hacked Off and its camp argue that only a dab of statute is needed for the press to get its house in order and serve the public. A new regulator would be created by parliamentary statute, but would not play a role in day-to-day operations, sitting instead at arm’s length from Westminster.

But would statute even keep up with the pace of change in the digital age? Would we see statutory definitions of privacy and the public interest as well?

Either this country has a press entirely free from government interference, or it doesn’t, quoting the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. A new regulator might not play a part in daily operations, but, as Nelson writes, “as soon as the device of political control is created, it can be ratcheted up later.”

It is now our country’s journalists who risk paying the price for the actions not only of a few reporters but also of power-seeking politicians and police. Ordinary journalists who are, let’s not forget, already hemmed in by England’s chilling libel laws and the plethora of other criminal legislation, several areas of which do not carry a public interest defence for reporters.

And, to muddy the waters a little more, we are all journalists now, to use author Nick Cohen’s words. That’s why the hand Leveson’s been dealt is a tough one: his recommendations may not just affect the press, they could affect all of us who blog, tweet our views or share our sentiments on Facebook.

Those of us who obsess about press freedom  might well have concerns about bringing statute into the game. And why shouldn’t we? Hard-won freedoms that are chipped away at, however well-intentioned, can be hard to replace.

Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index on Censorship. She tweets at @martaruco

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  1. Posted 27Nov12 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
    David Smith

    I profess to being puzzled by the case made against new legislation arising from Leveson.

    Firstly we’re told that “Either this country has a press entirely free from government interference, or it doesn’t” and then we’re told that journalists are “already hemmed in by England’s chilling libel laws and the plethora of other criminal legislation”.

    Who, other than politicians, creates the libel laws and the plethora of other criminal legislation? Who, other than politicians, are much of the press frantically lobbying to reform the libel laws?

    We don’t have a press that can do what the hell it wants now – I don’t understand why hundreds of years of press freedom will come to an end with one more, undrafted, unseen, unspecified piece of legislation given the vast amount of statute and rules that already constrain the press. Maybe any legislation that is written will have that effect, but unless/until we see it, and understand it, this all has the feeling of self-interested shroud waving

  2. Posted 27Nov12 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    As far asI can see the only proposal made has really just been a variant of the PCC which is independent (ie not merely editors and ex-editors), and which has some teeth. Personally I think the press (and many politicians) have missed a trick by not seemed to tie the issues of improved press regulation, by which we really mean a complaints and corrections service that actually works, with the much needed reforms to the defamation laws in this country. Loosen libel law, introducing proper public interest defences, and making honest mistakes (eg the Newsnight debacle) less actionable, but back it up with a robust corrections service and we can surely get the best of both worlds.

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